Joan Jones on Spinning Wheels
Earlier this year Wovember Team Member Tom bought a second-hand Timbertops spinning wheel made in the 80s by James and Anne Williamson. It’s a so-called chair wheel and this design is supposed to have been derived from a re-purposed chair. When Tom acquired the wheel, one maiden was missing, and the leather bearings which hold the flyer needed replacing. This is how he got in touch with Joan Jones, who, together with her husband Clive, runs Woodland Turnery, although the whole family helps out when needed. They still make Timbertops wheels, with great attention to detail. The replacement maiden had been turned and stained to look exactly the same as the others. Joan agreed to tell us a bit more about Woodland Turnery and more specifically the spinning wheel side of their business. They make new spinning wheels, but also repair and restore old wheels.
All pictures in this post are ©Joan Jones and used with her kind permission, unless otherwise stated.
Tom’s Timbertops chair spinning wheel, with skein (un)winder and lazy Kate, all originally made by James Williamson, picture ©Tom van Deijnen
Tom: Hi Joan! I would love to talk about the spinning wheel side of the business you run together with your husband Clive: Woodland Turnery. Some readers may know you already, but others may not, so could you tell the us a bit more about your background? When did you start working with wood, and what turned you to spinning wheels?
Joan: I originally came from London where I worked as an accounts clerk. I moved to Wales in 1969 and met and married Clive in the early 1970s. He made our first dining room table from old floorboards, replaced the stairs in our first house, and as the family expanded, made more furniture using, amongst others, recycled timber and bankrupt stock material. At this stage working with wood was purely for necessity more than a love of it. In 1981, when Clive was made redundant for the 5th time in two years, we set up our first business together as painter and decorator/jobbing builder. Clive was out doing the jobs and I was manning the office and getting stock in. I started to do pyrography (decorative wood burning) as a hobby. I am totally self-taught, and learnt about British grown timber in the process. As my knowledge progressed I went on to teach pyrography and did this for many years… Many folk know me as Woodburny.
Clive got his first lathe in 1983 and by 1991 had progressed so much that apart from making bowls etc. he started making lace bobbins. In 1993 he made his first spinning wheel. Two years later Clive gave up work and became a full time wood turner making bowls, giftware and the occasional spinning wheel. I was still working part time as a Senior Legal Cashier but the rest of my working day was spent working with wood. It was around this time we did a lot of work for a living history museum which expanded our knowledge of using wood dyes to match existing items in the museum. I think this is where we gained our expertise with regard to attention to detail.
When joining Brecon Farmers market in the early 2000s I met a number of stallholders and customers, who either had sheep or alpacas and in turn spinning wheels. Each market brought another sick wheel with parts to be repaired or bobbins to be replicated. Poor Clive never knew what I was going to bring in next! The knowledge we gained over this period was incredible with the vast range of wheels that we handled.
And Joan’s workshop
Tom: When I was looking to buy my first wheel, I looked all over the internet and time and again, Timbertops wheels were mentioned as being an exceedingly good make and I was holding out until I saw a second-hand one for sale. Now I’m the proud owner of an original Timbertops Chair Wheel. Timbertops spinning wheels were originally made by another husband and wife team: James and Anne Williamson. How did you end up taking over their business?
Joan: In October 2006 one of the members of Brecon FM, who was on the original steering committee for Wonderwool, asked us if we would consider having a stall at the 2007 Wonderwool. Clive set about making a wheel to take to the show and I started organising the spinning and weaving accessories we were going to take with us. Then all plans were thrown into disarray as both my parents were taken into hospital in December 2006. My father subsequently died in February 2007. We were both badly affected by this, yet he was also the person that wanted us to ‘live our dreams.’
Clive was worried as he had lost all incentive to make the wheel for the show in time, and I was also struggling, as my mother was still in hospital too. Discussing the problem, I suggested that as we were used to repairing wheels perhaps I could buy some wheels in and we could restore them. So I bought in four spinning wheels, we repaired and restored them and sold three out of them at the show. That opened up a whole new avenue of work for us.
The following year we were again accepted for Wonderwool and we were on the waiting list for Woolfest at Cockermouth. The stand organiser that year at Woolfest said if we didn’t mind a last minute call we may get in as we were high up on the reserve list, as what we supplied was so different from most of the other stall holders. Lo and behold just a few weeks before the show we got the call …we were in! We managed to take a large number of reconditioned wheels along to the show as well as the spinning and weaving accessories. We had lots of lovely comments about the quality of our reconditioned wheels and the stand organiser [it turns out this was Cecilia Hewett] was very impressed with them too.
She in turn knew James and Anne Williamson, makers of Timbertops spinning wheels and knew they were looking for someone to take over their business as they wished to retire. After various phone calls and a visit to their home in Leicestershire it was eventually agreed that we would buy their business from them on 1st December 2008 and continue it in the same way as much as possible. We had a difficult challenge ahead as we had built up our own reputation (and website), which we wanted to keep and now we were taking on the Timbertops mantle and had to uphold that reputation too. James & Anne had built up Timbertops from the 1970’s up until 2005 when Anne had a stroke and James had to take time out to look after Anne. Over the years James had built up a large range of models of spinning wheel, all of very high quality. We had a mammoth task on our hands and we didn’t know it but we were taking over at the beginning of the biggest recession for almost a century.
A Timbertops Jubilee spinning wheel, which has a 28″ wheel
Tom: You still produce Timbertops wheels to the same specification as the ones made by James and Anne Williamson. What makes Timbertops wheels so special, and what makes the new generation Timbertops different from the older generation?
Joan: We have tried to keep the Timbertops Wheels as close to James’s design as possible but this was made a little difficult a there were no paper patterns/drawings. We chose to start with the Leicester and James made up some templates, for example: 1/6th of a wheel, 1 upright, 1 leg, 1 mother of all, etc. and gave us the line drawing picture that went out to folk to help them assemble their new wheel. This was quite a challenge and although James offered to come to our workshop to help us assemble the first wheels etc., it was a 2 ½ hour drive and as our equipment was all different to James’s it was easier for us just to get on with the job. James did give us all his jigs, which we adapted where possible to fit our machinery. We did travel up to Leicester once or twice but mainly managed in our own workshop.
Gradually I managed to buy in various Timbertops wheels so that we could use those as templates together with notes from James. And so we progressed. It has taken a long time as we also had to accumulate seasoned timber, metal work, suitable leather etc. We use locally sourced wood, mostly found within a 50 mile radius from their workshop.
A reconditioned Ashford Traditional spinning wheel
The Timbertops wheels are very special as every part is made by hand from a plank of wood and even each individual metal part has been made with care too. Each wheel is individual because it is craftsman made and fine tuned. Our wheels will be very slightly different to James’s as we are all individual ‘craftsmen’. Also we use different equipment. James was an engineer and had some specialized equipment, ours are done by ‘eye’ but using either method great care is taken. Clive and I both work on the wheels. Most of the time Clive is working on wheels or replicating bobbins and I am busy on the lathe or other machinery making accessories: drop spindles, niddy-noddies, shuttles etc. Regrettably we had a devastating workshop fire in March 2012 and lost all our demonstration Timbertops wheels as well as all the templates, jigs and of course our stock of timber, metal etc. but we are gradually rebuilding our business again with new equipment and with the help and support of the spinning fraternity. We now work in a leafy hollow within a stone’s throw of the aqueduct on the Mon & Brecon Canal where it crosses the Afon Llwyd, a most idyllic spot.
The beautiful surroundings just outside Joan and Clive’s workshop
Tom: Last but not least, where can people find out more about your wheels and services?
Joan: People can find out more about us and products or services by checking out our website and our blog, or by phoning us (01495-757140 daytime –sometimes an answer machine- or evenings or 07901 790543 daytime) or making an appointment and visiting us here in South East Wales. Apart from wheel repairs we also replicate bobbins, flyers, and whorls.
We also attend shows and Guild meetings where apart from the sales table folk can try out the Timbertops wheels or reconditioned wheels or bring their wheel along to a wheel surgery where minor problems can be corrected or major problems discussed. If necessary the wheel can then go back to the workshop for repair.
A display at one of the trade shows: all wooden items made by Joan and Clive, and some of them decorated with pyrography
Thank you Joan, for giving us an insight into Woodland Turnery and the beautiful work that you do.